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Mali, North Korea and the Confluence of Histories

February 2nd, 2013 No comments
A protestor marching on Benghazi’s corniche on March 9, 2011 defaces as 1 dinar note featuring Muammar Qaddafi to shown his disdain for the Libyan dictator at the height of the Arab Spring movement. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

A protestor marching on Benghazi’s corniche on March 9, 2011 defaces as 1 dinar note featuring Muammar Qaddafi to shown his disdain for the Libyan dictator at the height of the Arab Spring movement. This image to me epitomizes the concept of my article featured below. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I had a couple of long term projects published at the end of this past week. The first was an examination of the little known history conjoining Mali in West Africa with North Korea in Northeast Asia over at Asia Times Online. I discovered this newly built part of Bamako while riding around on my fixer’s motorcycle last year when we were trying to organize a semi-doomed trip toward the front line with MUAJO et co up in Mopti Region.

Screen shot 2013-02-02 at 8.14.31 PMThis spot I found (linked, left) in the Malian capital is called Carré des Armées (Army Square) and it was built by a North Korean state enterprise (not as if Pyongyang encourages private enterprise). As I begun to play with the idea of doing a full length article on the topic, it dawned on me that Mali and North Korea had a shared history dating all the way back to Mali’s independence from France in 1960.

Not exactly a topic for broad mass consumption, I know, but for those who it may interest, I think it’s a fascinating topic. It also speaks to a lesser understood phenomena of how ties forged in the heat of the Cold War still can very much exist in a post-Cold War world.

The ties between North Korea and Mali certainly may have lessened over the decades and have changed in their orientation (started out as political and military in the 1960s, now more transparently financial-the same goes for Mali’s relationship with China). One of the key differences between the relationships between North Korea and China with an inherently unstable state like Mali is that seemingly no circumstances would or will derail ‘business as usual.’

Just for argument’s sake, I honestly think that if Ansar Eddine and its Salafi allies had somehow managed to capture Bamako and miraculously gain some kind of political legitimacy that over time Beijing and Pyongyang would still send delegations back to Mali to get their business interests on track. After all in 1960, the government of Modibo Keita was deemed a righteous, radical enough anti-imperialist government by Kim Il-sung and co to forge ties on the other side of the world. Maybe the anti-imperial tenets preached in the context of  Salafiyya-jihadiyya would be revolutionary enough for the Beijing’s politburo and the DPRK’s Workers’ Party of Korea to be able to keep infrastructure projects going uninterrupted. Who’s to say….

The second was a passion project nearly 14 years in the making about the history and symbology of all the war zone/quixotic regime currencies have managed to collect in my travels over the years featured in The Christian Science Monitor. It spans from an out-of-circulation Iranian rial I obtained in Tehran in 1999 to a Libyan 1 dinar note I saved from Benghazi in 2011.

The depiction of Philip the Arab on Syria’s 100 pound note is an indicator of the deep historical ties between ancient Iran and Syria. In a rock carving at the Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis in southern Iran’s Fars Province, Philip the Arab is shown along with the Roman Emperor Valerian the Elder as they bow before the Persian king Shapur I the Great. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

The depiction of Philip the Arab on Syria’s 100-pound note is an indicator of the deep historical ties between ancient Iran and Syria. In a rock carving at the Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis in southern Iran’s Fars Province, Philip the Arab (kneeling, far left) is shown along with the Roman Emperor Valerian the Elder (center) as they bow before the Persian king Shapur I the Great (mounted). Damascus’s employing Philip the Arab is likely no accident. Unlike the Saddam-era old 25-dinar note in Iraq depicting the Battle of al-Qadissyah showing an ancient Arab (Iraqi) enmity toward Persia (Iran)–Hafez’s al-Assad’s mortal enemy in the inter-Ba’ath rivalry–Syria’s 100-pound bill emphasized Syria and Iran’s ancient, shared history…in which Roman Arabia (present day Syria) is the supplicant. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Not a project that even the most ambitious young turk with a fancy master’s degree fresh out of Georgetown or Columbia could have done. It’s a bit of a blood, sweat and tears project in that sense and I was thrilled to have it come to fruition. I’ve dealt with countless fast talking money changers, sky rocketing wartime inflation, crossed borders only opened when regimes were in the process of being toppled and made all sorts of other absurd, laborious entreaties to obtain this collection.

Many of these specimens were lost for years or so I thought, until I uncovered them last fall in a musty storage locker and began to examine them one by one. I then realized they merited an article treatment on their own.

Most of these notes (except the Qadaffi-era dinar which is still in circulation pending the release of new notes by Libya’s central bank) are long out of circulation. And more importantly, each banknote tells a story both in its iconography laden artistry and in the circumstances in which I obtained it. The 20th anniversary of the Shia Islamic revolution in Iran, the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and so forth.Screen shot 2013-02-02 at 8.18.11 PM                                                                                                                                                                       

From the Highlands to the Islands-China’s Passport Roils Many of Its Neighbors

December 2nd, 2012 No comments

New York- I had a piece out in Friday’s edition of Asia Times Online about the massive diplomatic row belatedly caused the Chinese government’s new biometric passport. In one fell swoop, Beijing managed to ruffle feathers from the remotest corners of the South China Sea to the Himalayas. I did my best to write a long-ish piece within reason discussing most of the disputes highlighted by the passport as well as some that either were not or have not yet been discussed in the mainstream press.

There seems to be a now ingrained conventional wisdom that the era of large scale land wars between state powers is dead and that from the 1990s onward conflicts will be either state versus non-state or sub-state groups as in Lebanon 2006 or states fighting via non-state proxies versus discredited regimes as in Syria today. But as the short but hot August 2008 Russian invasion and brief occupation of the Republic of Georgia illustrated, a conventional land war in Eurasia or a maritime one in the cases of the East and South China Seas is far from out of the question.

China and India fought a brief but symbolic land war in 1962 when the PLA invaded Arunchal Pradesh and permanently occupied Aksai Chin while acquiring the Shaksgam Valley from Pakistan the following year in a quid pro quo arrangement with the Pakistani regime at the time (the Sino-Indian War). Then China invaded Viet Nam in 1979 as retribution for Hanoi forcibly deposing the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge and subsequently occupying neighboring Cambodia the previous year (the Sino-Vietnamese War). [It should be said that both of these conflicts can be discussed in the broader context of the Sino-Soviet split]

To young post-Cold War kids, these events may as well be consigned to ancient history but they are very much alive in the minds of the military strategists and foreign policy Mandarins of the aforementioned states. A lot has changed since 1962 in that India has attempted to form a nuclear balance against China-which had the deleterious diplomatic side effect of spawning a nuclear arms race with erstwhile China ally Pakistan. Viet Nam, meanwhile, pulled out of Cambodia in 1989, lost its Soviet patron in 1991, and is in the awkward process of drawing closer to the United States-and its ASEAN ally the Philippines-partly in reaction to its varied and sundry islet disputes with China to the north (even though both Hanoi and Manila have claims on the Spratlys).

One point I want to quickly clarify is that the so-called ‘nine-dash’ line that encompasses much of the South China/West Philippine Sea predates the Maoist takeover of China in 1949-but just barely. The New York Times has alluded to this pre-Communist cartographic assertion here and here. The line was originally drawn by the Kuomintang regime in 1947 and then adopted by Mao beginning in 1953 according to a Singaporean publication, Energy and Geopolitics in the South China Sea: Implication for ASEAN and Its Dialogue PartnersSome sources say the original U-shaped line was comprised of 11 dashes and later reduced to nine.

On a much lighter, soulful note, check out this Nina Simone gem I found on Youtube:

TWD’s China in Africa

June 8th, 2011 No comments

New York- I have the feature piece in today’s edition of Asia Times Online about China’s most visible entry into the African sphere so far–the construction of the new African Union by Beijing–at no up front cost to the Africans. Lots of interesting machinations going on in that part of the world, the resource economy’s last unbridled frontier. Click below for more.

China in Africa

April 9th, 2011 No comments

The monitor in the African Union's Situation Room here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Addis Ababa- Crashed the African Union HQ here in Addis yesterday to do research on my next Jamestown article. Absolutely fascinating, rather quiet place. I just showed up at the front gate, which took me a bit to locate, handed them my California driver’s license which got me a visitor badge, and walked in and wandered around. I was looking for information on a certain volatile political situation in the region and stumbled into the AU’s Situation Room, a fascinating office with a large flatscreen monitor with live news feeds from all over the continent (and these days that’s a lot of information). But what was most notable was the glittering, massive new AU complex being constructed by the Chinese government in the neighboring lot. It was as if the Jamestown Foundation’s China in Africa conference had suddenly sprung to life.

This is Africa! Chinese government foreman, Ethiopian laborer. Total south-to-south globalization. D.C., do you see this? ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

After working on my story at the AU-and an AU representative telling me the Chinese were unrelenting in their pursuit of primacy in not only Ethiopia but in all of Africa-it became blatantly obvious that anywhere where the political space allowed them, the Chinese were ready to move in overnight. I snooped around a sprawling construction site that cast wide shadows over corrugated aluminum shanties. It felt like I was breathing in some globalization cliché but it was all too visceral. It looked to be a hideously cheap structure that was being built at a breakneck pace. Progress at any cost looks to be the Chinese model here in the Horn of Africa. Click here for a bit of Chinese propaganda on the whole operation.

Gift of the Chinese people to Africa? OK. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Down the backstreets. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

In other TWD news, my last three destinations have not cooled off in the slightest. The Bahraini government grabbed another human rights activist in a night raid. Back in Cairo, the Egyptian army showed it is not as benevolent as many had thought as they raged during renewed protests calling for Mubarak and family to be tried. And in Libya, a group of journos, including a gal from Harvard I had socialized with on a few occasions, were captured by Qaddafist forces outside of Brega. Hope to god they are ok. Damn dangerous there. The fuse continues to burn. I’m off to Lalibela to explore the 12th century rock churches and expect to hassled by an army of touts. Should be fun. Been wanting to go there for about a decade.

This is how touts work their minibuses in Addis. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Lion of Judah. Jah! ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

How China Views ‘Revolutions’

February 20th, 2011 No comments

New York- I’m zipping through a book I borrowed from the shelves at the Jamestown Foundation by Zbigniew Brzezinski called Second Chance the other week which I’ve been reading to pass the time on various train trips. The book was written during the second term of George W. Bush and analyzes his, Clinton’s and his father George H.W.’s opportunities that they had as the only leaders of a post-Soviet unipolar world. I came across an especially interesting passage today about the aftermath of Tiananmen Square and the death of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu (who was executed with his wife Elena on Christmas Day 1989) in the Sino view of things.

On page 56 of Second Chance:

“…shortly after Ceasescu’s death, the supreme Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, asked the visiting Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, to convey a message to [George H.W.] Bush: “Do not get too excited about what happened in Eastern Europe, and do not treat China in the same manner.”

Substitute Eastern Europe in 1989-90 with the Arab convulsions today in this statement and try and extrapolate just how the Communist Party of China in Beijing views the deposement of their autocratic allies as this anecdote from well over 20 years so clearly illustrates. And the China of the present, as everyone knows is one with which the US has much less leverage than it would have in 1989 when the Tiananmen uprising and the tank man image posed the gravest threat to Communist rule there since Mao’s bloody founding of the PRC in 1949 following the resumption of the Chinese civil war after the conclusion of WWII.

All sorts of people have been wondering if the idea of democracy promotion is dead in light of how much of America’s debt, China, an authoritarian, single-party state, owns and the political and ideological ripple effects that has, along with the closer economic integration of East Asia and the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf and the Arab dictatorships of North Africa etc.

What is dead is the neoconservative idea of democracy at the point of a gun and silly nonsensical things like a “Clean Break.” But where the White House stands unsure is what to do when “moderate” allies that are grotesque police states who we outsource torture and other nasty things to collapse under their own demographic and repressive weight. While the ascendancy of China (mostly just China’s glittering skylines along its eastern seaboard) is heralded as some sort of new ‘new world order’ where democracy is no longer entirely relevant by trendy globalists, China’s rise is not yet assured as massive amounts of largely undocumented unrest carry on in the countryside.

A Spy, a Store, and a Revolution

February 3rd, 2011 No comments

New York- I have a new story out in today’s Asia Times Online about an alleged Chinese spy who was detained and deported from India in what seems to be a very curious case that has received no attention in the Western media that I know of. I came across the story while working on the new issue of Militant Leadership Monitor and decided that it was worth devoting a full article in and of itself.

A lot has happened in the world since I have been pecking away at my laptop. The Finest supermarket in Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood was suicide bombed last Friday that killed at least eight (or nine). While covering Afghan politics in 2009, I survived on provisions from the Finest Shahr-e-Nau location which often had the only working ATM in the city and was walking distance along dust-choked streets to the places I was holed up while filing stories. The Finest stores are owned by Sayyed Mansoor Nadiri, the head of Afghanistan’s Ismaili community and cater to Westerners in the city, making them an obvious target of Deobandi suicide attackers. I met and photographed Nadiri briefly while he cast his vote for Karzai on election day in Kabul and instructed all of his followers to vote for Karzai as well in one of Karzai’s many back room palace deals he cut with warlords and religious leaders to guarantee his “reelection.” I used often drive by the Wazir Akbar Khan location coming back into the city center from Jalalabad road and sit by the traffic circle nearby and observe Western mercenaries mingling in the parking lot after a hard day of tooling around the city intimidating Afghans and looked upon them with disdain. In any war zone, mercenaries are the bottom of the barrel in the hierarchy of “war tourists” and are a favorite target for insurgents. A deadly conflation appears when mercenaries, as fellow Westerners, consume the same goods and services as journalists, diplomats and aid workers and the wished for, supposed distinction of identity washes away and one target becomes indistinguishable from another in a highly chaotic environment. Kaboom!

Then al-Qahira (a.k.a. Cairo) where a day of rage has turned into days of rage and the Obama administration has consistently been “not out in front of this thing” to use my favorite political cliche of late. Mubarak has been the tallest hypocritical cornerstone in America’s bogus democracy promotion agenda for a long time. The last time I was in Egypt was after traveling there via Jordan after the American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Iraq was singled out by neoconservative ideologues as an unpalatable dictatorship that had to be overthrown by force and at once, largely because it was a dictatorship or so the world’s public was told (depending on the day and which way the wind was blowing). Egypt and Jordan, an authoritarian presidential patronage state and a constitutional monarchy respectively, are dictatorships that are stood up by the U.S. taxpayer due to their pliable leadership and peace treaties with Israel, another highly unegalitarian state. Here in the United States, every Zionist, anti-Arab pundit is desperately scrambling to play the Muslim Brotherhood card to confuse and frighten an unfortunately, largely naive public. These pundits views are as out of date as the Brotherhood’s. They only believe in democracy promotion so long as it fits their very narrow idea of democracy, an impossible fantasy in most of the world. Throughout the Cold War, we were told that the Arab world was not ready for democratic and open society because it would create a dangerous vacuum filled by the then boogey man de jour, communism. Now plenty of such Cold War-reared pundits are having a field day warning that the American public should not cheer on a liberation revolution on the streets of Egypt’s cities because surely nefarious Islamists will fill the dangerous void if Mubarak flees, say, to Saudi Arabia, another dictatorship. Then there are those that say things like “well we don’t know if Arabs are ready for democracy” which is akin to those who asked in 2008 whether American voters were “ready” for a black president. Basically, soft racism. The revolution in the Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East is being televised and it is nearly irrelevant what a White House press secretary says in a reactive rather than proactive statement at this point.

From the Mountain Tops

February 9th, 2010 No comments

The Hazrat Bal shrine on Dal lake in Srinagar. According to Shadow War by Arif Jamal, a temporary theft of the Prophet's hair relic from Hazrat Bal is what helped to ignite the still ongoing insurgency in the Kashmir Valley. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I attended an event at Asia Society in New York last Thursday called India and Pakistan: Back from the Brink? that dealt largely with the never ending fight over Kashmir. From India was C. Raja Mohan, author of Crossing the Rubicon: The Shaping of India’s New Foreign Policy and current Kissenger Chair at the Library of Congress.  From Pakistan was Dr. Adil Najam, professor of International Relations at Boston University. No one from the other major stakeholder, China (with its own slice of occupied Kashmir called Aksai Chin) was present nor was there a Kashmiri to represent the people of Kashmir save for an audience member who spoke up. The event was moderated by Briton Robert Templer from the International Crisis Group. Raja Mohan explained to the audience that the Musharraf years between 2004-2007 were more productive toward a modicum of Indo-Pak peace than the sum of foreign relations in the previous four decades. All of this was derailed by the end of Musharraf’s one-man, rather unipolar military-civilian government, and of course the vile Mumbai terror attack in late November of 2008. Mohan said that the post-Musharraf power structure in Islamabad had complicated things in that the Singh government was now dealing with a Kayani-Zardari-Gilani troika rather than just talking to and dealing with one man as it had done for years with General Pervez Musharraf.

From Left: C. Raja Mohan, moderator Robert Templer, and Adil Najam. ©2010 Derek Henry Flood

With the prospect of a getting a peace process back on track, Mohan said that such a process must be able withstand pressure from the spoilers. That is to say if Lashkar-e-Tayyba or another Pakistani terror group launches a large scale attack on the Indian heartland, that peace talks will not automatically be turned off at the tap in response. Doing so would hand another victory to those waging asymmetrical warfare/mass murder in South Asia. Adil Najam stated that he was more of an optimist than a realist when considering territorial disputes between India and Pakistan in a broader context. Najam is hopeful that by working on the Sir Creek dispute on the Arabian Sea and the Siachen glacier dispute on the Chinese frontier abutting the Chinese-controlled Shaksgam valley, the larger Kashmir dispute can be talked about more amicably if the less ideologically and emotionally-based conflicts can be settled peacefully. Najam believes there is currently a viable window open for the two primary players to work on the Kashmir dispute but that this window will not last and must be taken advantage of in the near term. Mohan said the Indians were unclear if Musharraf’s policies on Kashmir had been grandfathered in by the current Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani and were therefore not sure of some of the parameters for discussion with their Himalayan opponent. On the subject of cross border terrorism, often Delhi’s biggest contention, Najam said that Pakistan will reign in terror groups when it realizes it is in its own interest to do so rather than as a component of Indian demands (that may further bruise Pakistan’s battered ego). Mohan concluded that Kashmir and the other disputes between India and Pakistan (he left out poor Bangladesh) are more of a post-1947 South Asian civil war stemming from the massive internecine partition than a classic war in the international sense.

A martyr's cemetery on the outskirts of Srinagar where exhumed bodies from so-called "fake encounters" are reburied. Fake encounters amount to what local human rights groups claim are the killing of innocent Kashmiri civilians by Indian security forces and posthumously labeling them "Pakistani militants" in order to justify their ongoing military occupation of the region. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

A Lament for Pakistan

I have a piece this week on the Huffington Post on where Pakistan was and where it is or could be going. Read it here